The Housing Chronicles Blog: New home architecture as a competitive edge

Friday, January 29, 2010

New home architecture as a competitive edge

With steeply discounted foreclosures taking a huge bite out of the potential demand for new homes over the past couple of years, the nation’s home builders initially reacted with a combination of incentives and price cuts to stay competitive. Yet as the recession has worn on, the building industry has managed to find another trump card up its sleeve that will stay with us even as the economy rebounds: compelling architecture. Ranging from the practical and sustainable to the purely aesthetic, new home design is here to stay as a primary means for builders to stay competitive.

At the most recent Gold Nugget Awards in San Francisco, the one common element among the award-winning projects was not only offering attractive exteriors and an efficient use of space, but also incorporating designs into the scale and look of the surrounding area.

For example, Barry Berkus’ Yarnolani Court won Project of the Year for what is in fact a small, five-unit infill project in Santa Barbara not just due to its LEED Platinum certification and its unique way of combining interior and exterior spaces, but also due to its attention to detail. While remaining true to the city’s Spanish architectural traditions, Yarnolani Court offers a slimmed-down scale to accommodate less than 2,000 square feet of living space while still paying attention to details such as cantilevered wooden alcoves, wrought iron railings and arched windows and doors.

In areas throughout the Sun Belt, smaller interior square footages can be balanced by a more artistic approach to bringing in the outside. That’s how a project such as Shapell’s Grand Award for its Belmaison in San Jose can be recognized for its use of double courtyards that allow natural light and passive ventilation to maximize the impact of what nature has to offer on a very narrow lot.

For a high-density urban development, paying attention to the scale of the surrounding neighborhood is critical. In the case of Grand Award-winner The Renaissance by Signature Properties in the City of Concord (a suburb of the Bay Area), connections to the immediate area – including transit stops – are enabled by a scale friendly to pedestrians and enhanced by exterior articulations that underscore the high quality of materials used. The result is a project that won’t seem trendy five years from now and has become an integral part in the city’s revitalization plans.

Even for an infill project in an existing suburban area, sensitivity to local history and architectural norms is critical. When SummerHill Homes built Lane Woods in Menlo Park -- once known as a weekend getaway for residents of San Francisco and San Jose – the builder preserved 96 existing trees, oriented lots around a central park, and offered up traditional wood siding, large porches and balconies. Suddenly a project with just 32 homes could lay claim to its own version of an ‘old growth’ neighborhood while still providing the environmental and technological benefits of new construction.

As builders – and their buyers – continue to embrace the advantages of green building, even small changes can make a difference. For example, porous pavers can assist water run-off during storms while re-charging underground aquifers, roof-integrated solar panels can help reduce power bills while minimizing the aesthetic impact to the exterior look, and specially treated paint applied to just about any surface can act as an insulator capable of cutting energy use by 20% to 40%.

On a national scale, the days of the ever-present stucco home may even be numbered. According to a recent survey conducted by Harris Interactive, 59% of homeowners with a preference for siding would choose brick, followed distantly by vinyl with 37%, stucco with 19%, fiber cement/composite with 14% and ‘other,’ with 11%. It looks like more sophisticated and traditional exteriors – those which win awards -- are here to stay.

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